“Pedagogies of Looking” conversation with Kim Simon and Amish Morrell
C Magazine‘s fall issue addresses the art world’s ongoing interest in forms of pedagogical practice, experimental education and public engagement, and it was under this rubric that editor Amish Morrell (whose own research also addresses forms of pedagogy, as seen in his current curatorial project, “Outdoor School“) invited Gallery TPW curator Kim Simon and myself to discuss our work together organizing public programs that drew on theories of psychoanalysis and education.
It was a challenging opportunity to revisit some of the desires, aims, and thwarted expectations that propelled “Coming to Encounter,” the yearlong curatorial residency I undertook at Gallery TPW R&D at Kim’s invitation that explored how altering the frameworks in which viewers encounter difficult images might change the things that viewers want from images. Central to that residency was the series of “looking groups” I organized, under the title No Looking After the Internet, which asked participants to look at difficult images together and think about how we make meaning from them collectively, and the outcomes of those events preoccupy much of Kim and my conversation with Amish.
Given the residency’s interest in exploring the latency of knowledge offered by images of social violence, it seems fitting to return to these conversations with Kim almost four years later, and to think about what we both learned from these experiments in doing “research in public,” as she has so eloquently described it. I’ve often described No Looking, in particular, as a series of productive failures, and that still seems the case to me. Perhaps there is something too difficult about practices of looking out loud, and engaging with the hard lessons some of these images offer, to lead to immediately fulsome and self-reflexive conversations about what and how we see one another.
Big thanks are due to all the artists who collaborated on the No Looking project, as well as the folks who attended, and especially to the participants in Pip Day’s 2015-2016 curatorial workshop at SBC Gallery, and the students in the CRIT 525: Making and Curating Art: Pedagogy and Praxis graduate seminar at Roski School of the Arts who generously offered some incredibly difficult questions about how this curatorial methodology operates.
Amish Morrell: Could you say more about how you were defining “difficult images” in this context?
Gabby Moser: The idea of “difficult images” came from “difficult knowledge,” which is Deborah Britzman and Roger Simon’s idea that social traumas are incredibly hard to “learn from” because they challenge your worldview.
Kim Simon: Not just your worldview: they present the learner with something that’s difficult to incorporate because it challenges your ego, your very sense of self.
GM: I was interested in psychoanalytic theory, so I had been thinking about why some images seem impenetrable, even if they’re given to you with didactic material and public programming. I was wondering if there was something about the context in which those images were presented that created a block that prevented the viewer from engaging with their experience of looking at them. What if you changed that context? What if you looked at these images with other people and had to talk about what you were looking at? What if you encountered the image in a way that involved other people right from the beginning?
KS: The No Looking series came about because Gabby and I had been having a conversation about No Reading After the Internet, a reading group organized by cheyanne turions, Amy Kazymerchyk and Alexander Muir where people don’t read the text in advance, but read it out loud together in a group. Because you never get to read the whole text through in a meeting, it becomes more about the group that’s present and their reactions and responses to a given phrase or paragraph. You’re allowed to go off on tangents and it becomes very productive, but in a way that sometimes has nothing to do with the text. It’s a great project with a really democratic ideology. At the same time, their method always made me think about questions of responsibility to the text. What should the balance be between really understanding a source text and reacting to it? What does understanding mean? I’d had related questions about curatorial responsibility around showing difficult documentary images, and so it seemed like an important opportunity when Gabby articulated her interest in finding ways to allow for people’s immediate affective responses to challenging images. What if we developed a related “no reading…” method for difficult images? We had a lot of “meta” questions about how to run the program, not the least of which was how to make affective response a serious part of curatorial thought without instrumentalizing (and potentially traumatizing) audiences.
See Deborah Britzman, Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Toward a Psychoanalytic Inquiry of Learning (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998) and Roger Simon, “A Shock to Thought: Curatorial Judgment and the Public Exhibition of ‘Difficult Knowledge,’” Memory Studies 4.4 (October 2011): 432–449.